In 2015, Netflix premiered a new sci-fi show from the Wachowskis, famous for The Matrix, and J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5: Sense8. Its premise focused on eight strangers scattered across the globe who develop a new ability to connect their thoughts and feelings to one another. They have become a new type of human known as homo sensorium, or sensates.
A few good-to-knows about how sensates work: each sensate is part of a cluster of seven other people. Sensates can feel and communicate with other members of their cluster without speaking; they call it “visiting.” They can also adopt one another’s skills, whether it’s speaking French or fighting like Jean-Claude Van Damme. If a sensate makes eye contact with another homo sensorium, they are also connected.
There are also norms and rules around interacting with other sensates. As the cluster of eight people we follow quickly discovers, sensates don’t announce their abilities, they avoid crowds. They take pills that stop them from communicating with other people, even within their own cluster. If they’re visiting with people outside of their cluster, they take extra precautions to conceal their location. They take all these precautions because one power-hungry doctor is hunting them. Among sensates, he’s known as The Cannibal.
I’ve watched this show several times now. On a more recent re-watch, something caught my attention. And once I noticed it, I couldn’t unsee it.
All of these elements of being a sensate? They have a lot in common with what it feels like to be a queer person.
Introducing Lito Rodriguez and Nomi Marks
Plenty of queer elements ARE explicit in the show. Several characters are part of the alphabet mafia, a tongue-in-cheek term I recently heard to identify folks who are LGBTQ+ that I adore. We spend the most time with Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) and Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton).
Lito is an actor; one look at him and you know he’s the guy in the movies who always gets the girl. He’s all broad shoulders and rippling muscles. No wonder he’s one of Mexico City’s hottest action stars. He always has a young ingenue on his arm, but they never last. He’s doing everything he can to keep the paparazzi away from the truth: he’s gay. Keeping this part of himself secret from the rest of the world makes him constantly on edge. He has sworn his boyfriend to secrecy, refusing to be seen with him in public. Fear has made his world small and fragile.
When Lito becomes a homo sensorium, he leans on his skills of self-preservation and deception. He can see Nomi and the other members of his cluster. Can anyone else? He can’t tell anyone else that he has these… visions. They would think he was hallucinating. He stays quiet, keeping his head down. In many ways, Lito looks like every other human. He can pass. His world seems like it gets even smaller despite having these new, amazing abilities.
Nomi, in contrast, has refused to cower. She works as a hacktivist, living in San Francisco with her girlfriend (Freema Agyeman as Amanita). As a trans woman, she refuses to wilt under her mother’s withering gaze. Instead, she has cut her family off, only seeing them for major life events like weddings (where there’s also plenty of champagne to help her get through it). In the first few episodes, Nomi has to face off with trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) and maneuver through a labyrinthine medical system that seems hell-bent on making her life harder. Instead of focusing just on the challenges she faces, the show also shows the joy she’s created in her life. In the opening Sense8 episode ‘Limbic Resonance’ (S1, Ep1), she and her girlfriend lounge in one of the parks, happy and in love as they eat pot brownies. Nomi gleefully preps for the Pride parade with a neon pink bikini top, big hair, and plenty of glitter. After years of fearing Pride, she now embraces it. She marches for the part of her that couldn’t for so long.
When she becomes homo sensorium, she tells her girlfriend soon after. The girlfriend nods in understanding. Cool, I’m on board. Even though her girlfriend can’t see any of the other members of her cluster, she learns who they are easily enough. Nomi being a different type of human turns into dinnertime conversation, something small and manageable.
Nomi gives us the first taste of how important it is to find your people. Lito shows how being alone can suffocate. He’s so used to his self-imposed isolation, he could probably stay like that. Except Lito isn’t alone in figuring out what it means to be homo sensorium. He has seven other people in his cluster who can turn to for support. He can compare notes with Sun (Bae Doona), the CFO from South Korea, or Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), the safecracker from Berlin.
The queer community has a term for building a group of confidantes: found family. They’re not typically not blood-related; instead, they are people who love and accept you for you. Lito has stumbled into a sci-fi found family who sees that he has these new abilities and delights in him regardless.
Through this unusual setup, he also gets a chance to tiptoe into what it would be like if the rest of the world knew he was gay. When he crosses paths with Wolfgang, Lito hesitates. He knows how guys who look like Wolfgang behave. They shrug off affection; they use misogynistic language to make sure other people know they’re not weak. True, the Berliner is quiet, a bit gruff, always dressed in black, and handy with a gun; it’s clear he separates himself from much of the world. But when given the chance to reach for cruelty, he instead reaches for kindness — with Lito and with other people he cares about.
Wolfgang is openly affectionate with his best friend. He helps Lito fight off homophobic assholes without question. He seems at ease around other men, not like he’s trying to prove something, especially when sex and nudity are involved. “Germans are not so uptight about nudity,” Wolfgang explains in ‘Demons’ (S1, Ep6). He sees Lito as a full person, not just as a stereotype and a blank slate for all of his worries about masculinity to be cast upon.